I'm going to write for the next couple of weeks on my present musings on orthodoxy and ordained ministry.
In the first couple of centuries after Pentecost, one of the Church's primary concerns (aside from local or generalized persecution by the Empire) was defining and guarding orthodoxy from various streams of false teaching, especially Gnosticism. You can see early attempts in the NT Canon, as John the Elder warns that anyone who doesn't teach that Jesus had a real body is antichrist (2 John 1:7).
Try not to read our post-modern "repression fables" back into that time and place. Gnostics and Arians and various hetrodox Christians may have meant well, but bad theology is bad for you. The early Christians ultimately decided that a Christ who did not come in the flesh cannot save, nor can a Christ who is not God. (The arguments and their refutations are quite a bit more complicated than that, so forgive my oversimplification.) I don't think the orthodox bishops were simply well-appointed, well-educated men who were trying to get it over on their politically weaker colleagues.
The scriptures themselves were not as much help in combating heresy as one would like to think. It was clear to Christians of that time, even as today that one can pull out random bits of the Bible and insist that it evidences any personal interpretation presented. From what I've read, here are a couple of solutions put forth at the time.
Apostolic Succession. Simply put, it's a second century teaching (by Irenaeus of Lyons, c.180) that maintains that the only valid bishops of Christ's Church are the ones who were ordained by other bishops who were ordained by other bishops who were ordained by apostles. This is important as the episcopate developed as a teaching office. You could trust their teaching to be truth and apostolic because they were trained by people who were trained by the apostles, who were with Jesus themselves.
I'm not sure if I can see this as a helpful or meaningful authority structure in this time and place.
First, what could be a reasonable idea during the first few generations after the Resurrection of Jesus is stretched a bit thin now. Just because all the right people laid hands on other people is no guarantee that contemporary bishops have been discipled or trained in a Christianity the apostles themselves would honor or even recognize. Extreme example: Anglicans claim the succession, but bishops such as Charles Bennison of Pennsylvania is widely quoted as arguing that Jesus himself was a forgiven sinner. The Marian dogmas of the Church of Rome certainly are no teachings that the apostles or the next several generations would have affirmed.
A lack of discipleship and teaching in the apostolic vein as evidenced by heretical teachers are a pretty big strike, to my thinking.
Second, I can think of a number of communities that meet other standards of apostolicity, catholicity and missional living that don't have the benefit of bishops on the apostolic succession. Does that make their presbyters second-rate? I don't think so. I'm no Donatist, but what's the point of being ordained by a bishop that doesn't believe in Jesus in any meaningful way compared to being appointed by one's own local community?
Apostolic succession wasn't a teaching of the apostles, either. It was a helpful teaching of the Church in a particular time and place. If it no long does what it was intended to do, and is not a gospel imperative, what's the point?
Further, do bishops create Christians or do Christians create bishops? Yeah, that's a rhetorical question...
More to follow...
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5 months ago